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Half Hope

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Prince Gaspard’s desk was a wasteland of papers, scattered and skewed across the dark wood. The prince himself sat with his eyes closed, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. This close, in an attitude of near-relaxation, the crow’s feet bracketing his eyes were visible, and the grey lightening the dark hair at his temples. Unaware, for the moment, that he was not alone in his office, he looked almost soft.

Gaspard looked up, and in an instant, he was his usual self again, straight-backed, blue eyes piercing. Putting on his people-face for me, Pim thought mournfully. “Your Highness,” Gaspard said politely, his hands automatically setting paper into neater stacks. “What can I do for you?” Pim watched as his eyes strayed to the window, and to his desk, not meeting Pim’s for long.

This strained politeness had been the tenor of all of their meetings, ever since Pim had arrived in the court of Gaspard’s nephew. Gaspard himself must have had a large hand in arranging this match – everyone knew he was the real administrative power behind the throne – so his disinterest was a puzzle to Pim. And he had not offered a chair, so Pim remained standing, hands folded behind his back. “Lord Yves was telling me about the horses you keep on your White Coast estate,” Pim said, his voice carefully casual. “I thought perhaps we might arrange a visit, to see your stables. It is nearer than the family lands, is it not?”

Pim could see the annoyance forming behind Gaspard’s polite mask: a quick look into Pim’s eyes, a tightening of the lips quickly smoothed away, and finally the charming smile that made Pim want to scream in frustration. Pim had asked for much less and been turned down with that same smile: a walk, a dance, meals more intimate than the state dinners that had greeted his arrival. This time, he would not simply accept refusal; he was ready for negotiation.

Before Gaspard could speak, he said, “It is only a day’s ride; I have that by the authority of Lady Aurelie herself.” Aurelie was a royal cousin, closer to Pim’s age than Gaspard’s. They had been much thrown together since his arrival, with Gaspard so busy. He stepped closer, reaching out to touch the wrinkles at the corner of one of Gaspard’s eyes. “You work yourself exhausted; a rest—”

Gaspard’s hand caught Pim’s abruptly, pulling it away from his face. “I need no rest,” he said, looking at his papers. He released Pim’s hand. “And there will be time for travel after the wedding. It would not be proper before then.”

“Lady Aurelie and her husband would chaperone if we asked,” Pim said.

“It’s not the right time,” Gaspard said, and his voice was impatient now. Pim closed his lips on a tart reply, sick of being made to feel like a fly buzzing round his betrothed’s head – or an impatient child.

“It is never the right time,” he said at last, voice measured, slow. “It was not the right time to dance – at a party thrown in our honor. It is not the right time to dine together, though Lady Aurelie assures me that two men may dine in perfect propriety even if they are betrothed. There is never enough time to spend in each other’s company during the daytime, because you spend the day managing the king’s affairs.”

He took a breath, meeting Gaspard’s eyes. The other man leaned slightly away from him, hands tensed on the desk, and Pim’s frustration died away to sadness. “If there will never be time, then tell me now and I will stop asking,” Pim said quietly, no longer looking at Gaspard’s face, but at his hands, resting on the desk between them. “It is only two months until the wedding. We had best start planning now for whatever comes after.”

The silence that followed was so heavy that Pim wanted to break it, or to leave; he forced himself to stay instead, waiting, eyes still on Gaspard’s fingers. At last, the other man sighed. “I will speak to Lady Aurelie,” he said. “And begin making arrangements.”

Pim looked up, startled. He had not truly expected Gaspard to give in. He examined Gaspard’s face, and what he found there was equally surprising: not the polite mask, but something a touch wearier, closer to the expression he’d worn when Pim had come in. “I look forward to it,” Pim said, and he smiled at Gaspard. “Good night, my lord,” he said, the address itself an intimacy he had not dared before. Gaspard didn’t respond immediately, and Pim was at the door when he finally heard an answering, “Good night.”

 

Pim laughed into the wind, his blonde hair whipping and stinging his cheeks. Underneath him, hooves pounded the dirt road, and he could hear Aurelie behind him, urging her horse on. Suddenly, they were at the turning, and Pim hauled on his reins. They cut a wide swathe through an open field, slowing as they went. Pim leaned over to Aurelie as they waited for Gaspard and Martin, Aurelie’s husband, to catch up. “I told you,” he said.

“You did,” Aurelie said, laughing. She shaded her eyes, looking back down the road at their traveling companions. “You should ask my cousin to race sometime,” she said. “Now he would give you a challenge.”

“Him?” Pim asked sharply.

Aurelie eyed him sideways. “We are going to visit his stable of very fine horses,” she said. “Did you not think he would also know how to ride?”

“No, I…” Pim frowned. “It’s strange to think of him having fun.”

Aurelie made a noise in her throat. “It’s true; he has always been very attentive to his duties. Before his brother, the old king, passed, he was merely administering to his own estates. But then Lionel ascended…” She sighed. “It will be good for him to leave court once in a while. There are others to see that nothing goes wrong, and he is no longer regent.”

“In name, at least,” Pim said. King Lionel had reached adulthood several years ago, but stories of his pleasure-seeking had reached even across the Rillan Sea to Pim’s father’s court. Of that, and of Gaspard’s calm hand on the reins. Pim’s father had had no reservations when Lionel’s emissary opened negotiations for a betrothal between Gaspard and one of their sons.

Pim, for his part, had been startled to be chosen. The fourth of seven sons, he had done little to distinguish himself. He was a decent swordsman, it was true, and a better rider, but his main occupation had always been people: nobles and knights, merchants and master craftspeople, emissaries from distant lands – he talked to everybody who passed through his father’s court. As unlikely as being chosen for his accomplishments was the idea that he’d been chosen strategically for alliance: their kingdoms were easy neighbors, and Pim had no inheritance of his own, nor any purpose in this court.

Once more, Pim felt frustration burning like a hot coal in his chest. Something must come of this trip; he must strike some deal with Gaspard, make some decision as to what his place here would be. Until then, he would run always into the barrier of his being here for Gaspard.

The others arrived with a thumping of hooves, and Pim rejoined them, smiling again as Martin congratulated him on a well-ridden race. “I must give credit to this very fine horse,” he replied, smiling and patting the chestnut’s shoulder. He slanted a look at Gaspard. The horse was one of his; Pim’s own horse would not have made the trip across the sea well. Gaspard did not look at him, his eyes on the road, but Pim thought he saw the corner of his mouth curve up, just for a moment.

Say something, Pim thought, but he didn’t say it.

 

They arrived at Soulévy in darkness. While Aurelie had been correct that it was a day’s ride to the estate, it was a very long day’s ride; they’d stopped for dinner at an inn along the way. Pim caught no more than a glimpse of moonlight on the sea before he was ushered inside, and he was too tired to keep track of the turns the servant took leading him to his room. He quickly undressed, snuffed the candle, and crawled into the bed. Sinking into the cool sheets, he knew no more.

The next morning, he got a better look at his room: white walls, heavy furniture carved from a dark wood that matched the floors, and spare ornamentation otherwise. The house was placed on a cliff, surrounded on two sides by air and the ocean, and as far as he could tell from his own window, every room on those sides looked out over the softly hissing water. Pim spent a peaceful half hour hanging out that window, face turned into the wind. The combined effect of sea, sunlight, and the plainness of the inside of the house was oddly restful.

Not long after breakfast, a knock came at his door, and Pim called, “Come in.” When he turned, he found Gaspard himself standing in the doorway.

Pim straightened, pushing his mussed hair hurriedly out of his face. “Your Highness,” he said, smiling. “We missed you at breakfast.”

“I woke and ate early,” Gaspard said. When Pim raised his eyebrows, he added, “Force of habit.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, eyes leaving Pim’s face. “I thought perhaps I might show you the stables now – if you’re amenable.”

“I am,” Pim said. There was silence for a moment, every time that Gaspard had refused time spent with Pim hanging between them. “Let me get my coat,” Pim said at last, coming towards Gaspard. The coat hook was beside the door, and Gaspard and Pim danced around each other as Pim unhooked it.

“Let me,” Gaspard said suddenly, putting his hands on the fabric. Pim met his eyes, then acquiesced, letting Gaspard slide the sleeves over his arms. Gaspard’s hands, big as they were, worked with precision. In that breath of time when Gaspard stood behind him, close enough that he could feel the warmth of his body, Pim shivered.

In the next moment, Gaspard was holding the door open, and Pim stepped out of the room, pasting a smile on his face. “Lady Aurelie tells me you ride, too,” Pim said over his shoulder as they walked.

Gaspard chuckled. “I did ride more when I was younger,” he said. “I was a regular hellion in my youth.”

“Now, that, I don’t believe,” Pim said.

“Only on a horse,” Gaspard admitted. “Hunts are fine sport, but a race – when it’s just you and the horse – nothing compares.”

Pim stopped for a moment to let Gaspard catch up, leaning against the wall. He smiled slyly across at him. “Race me sometime,” he said.

Gaspard paused, eyes considering. “No one told me you were a horseman,” he said.

“You could have asked.”

“Yes. I could have,” Gaspard said. He reached out, taking Pim’s elbow tentatively. “Perhaps we can find – other things – in common. You were right about that, too. I don’t wish us to be strangers.”

“Nor me,” Pim said, relaxing a little. He pushed away from the wall, letting Gaspard lead him.

The stables themselves were a sight; Gaspard admitted to keeping more servants for maintenance of this than of the house, which he was rarely able to visit these days. As they examined a pretty little grey mare, Gaspard said, “I spent summers here with my mother and father as a boy. The rest of the year we might travel to and fro, but this was always a fixture.” He smoothed his fingers through the mare’s forelock, making it lie straight, then stepped away. “Come, I can show you something else.”

Gaspard stood there, hand outstretched, and Pim thought what a difference there was already between this man and the man he’d been acquainted with at court. He looked lighter here, as if the responsibilities that weighed him down at court had lifted a little. Aurelie was right: it was good for him, spending time away. Pim slipped his hand into Gaspard’s without a word, not wanting to send this new, more open Gaspard back into hiding.

They headed away from the house, and Pim thought for a moment that they were only going to the cliff’s edge. But there, invisible from further away, was the beginning of a trail that wound down a rocky slope to the ocean. They picked their way down in single file, no longer holding on to each other, until finally they reached the water.

The beach here was not sandy, as Pim had expected, but covered in thousands of small, smooth stones, draped in places with brown kelp. It was treacherous footing, and a few steps in, a stone tilted beneath Pim’s foot, sending him off balance. Gaspard reached out, catching Pim’s elbow, and Pim grinned at him. “Thanks,” he said, winding a hand in the back of Gaspard’s jacket to hold on. He turned, looking out over the sea.

“Amazing,” he breathed, eyes following the silver waves to where they met a grey horizon. “I never spent much time by the sea. Not until the voyage here. It’s still so…” Gaspard laughed softly, nearly in Pim’s ear, and Pim found himself leaning into the other man.

Gaspard tensed against him, and Pim remembered himself and pulled away. “My apologies,” he said stiffly.

“No,” Gaspard said. His eyes stared off over Pim’s shoulder. He jerked them back to Pim, obviously uncomfortable. “It’s good of you.” Annoyance flared in Pim again at that: how did Gaspard always manage to make Pim feel like this – as if he were too eager? He started to feel behind him for a safe place to step, but Gaspard said, “No, wait.”

“I am always waiting for you,” Pim said, and this time, he didn’t stop his voice from rising. “Waiting for the wedding – waiting for a moment you’re not busy. Was I brought here for nothing?” He picked his way over the rocks as quickly as he could, leaving Gaspard behind, toe deep in the surf.

He felt shrill and childish the whole way back to the house. 

 

“What's the trouble?”

Aurelie had cornered him at last after dinner, guiding him into a chair in the drawing-room as Gaspard and Martin spoke together in low voices. Pim met her too-keen eyes, then glanced at the other men. They seemed fully absorbed in their conversation.

“You know?” he asked.

“The looks you two have been giving one another could freeze water,” Aurelie said.

Pim sighed and re-settled in his seat, facing more towards her. “We argued, but it isn’t just him,” he said. “You have been welcoming, many people have, but I don’t really have a place here.” Aurelie glanced significantly at Gaspard, and Pim felt the muscles in his face tighten. “That does not count as a place if his Highness is going to remain this aloof. I don’t know that it would be enough, anyway.”

Aurelie hummed sympathetically. “You had more at home, of course.”

“Not so much in the way of official responsibilities,” Pim said. He thought, trying to put words to what he had felt in his father’s court. “But I represented my family wherever I went. I promoted their interests, helped sustain their reputation. I can do that here, and will, but that, too, is not the same as having a place here.” He fell silent, swirling the wine in his glass absently.

“It may not be the answer you’re looking for,” Aurelie said, “but you’ve not been here long. It will come, in time, the belonging. We will make you one of us.”

“Is that a promise?” Pim said, managing a teasing smile. It wasn’t quite a flirt; she was married, he engaged, and he had no interest in a fling with her in any case. But it was nice, being easy with someone.

“I will do all I can for you,” Aurelie said, and there was a smile in her voice, too.

When Pim glanced up again at Gaspard and Martin, he thought he caught Gaspard just looking away. Just talk to me, he thought, hating himself for the pain of that desire.

 

The next morning’s dawn threw insistent fingers of light along his face, waking him long before he was ready. It was colder here in the summers than at home, and this was a clear, still sort of morning, the air like glass. Pim wrapped up and decided to walk around the grounds a little. Eventually, though, he found himself at cliff’s edge, as though drawn there.

Far below, a figure in dark clothing stood on the rocks, boots abandoned, trousers rolled up. The waves swirled around his ankles, but he looked unmoveable. Pim watched him a moment, then turned his attention to the water and the margin of rocks that meandered off in either direction. He could see how a man could come to love this place.

Movement caught his eye, and he turned to see Gaspard climbing back up. He nearly turned away then, but Gaspard held a hand up, signaling him to wait with obvious urgency. For a moment, Pim struggled: he’d made a fool of himself enough times with hope, and waiting, and second and third and fourth chances. He couldn’t force himself to leave, though.

They met at the top in silence, at a loss for words for long moments. Gaspard reached out, and Pim held his breath as broad, callused palms cupped his hands, then lifted them. They stood there, hands linked, while Gaspard’s brow crinkled and Pim wished he could read the thoughts behind those pale eyes.

“I haven’t been fair to you, or honest,” Gaspard said at last. Pim tilted his head a little, and that seemed to be all the invitation Gaspard needed to go on. “I was compelled to seek marriage by my nephew – I don’t know how much you know of that.”

“Very little,” Pim said. “And that only through gossip.”

Gaspard sighed. “When I was made regent, I swore not to marry before His Majesty reached the age of majority. After… I hadn’t thought to seek it out, I suppose.”

“Why not?” Pim asked, though he knew enough of Gaspard’s character by now to guess.

“I was a young man when my brother died, and might have wanted to marry then,” Gaspard said, shrugging. “Later, it seemed less important.” Slowly, he withdrew his hands from Pim’s, restlessly plucking at his cuffs, tugging them straight. “His Majesty – ah. I think he is jealous of his place, worried that I will resent doing so much work for him and try to take it. He never says as much, but his actions…” He frowned. “His latest attempt to – stop that, I suppose – his latest measure has been to insist that I find a man to marry. A man, specifically. And so I began to search.”

Pim swallowed, his thoughts churning with a thousand questions – about the king, and what danger Gaspard and he might be in if his jealousy grew, but – selfishly – also about Gaspard’s own preference. Men were rarely compelled to marry men for politics; most often the choice came down to a mixture of preference and practical considerations, if blood heirs were not a priority. Pim had never considered the possibility.

Gaspard’s eyes searched Pim’s, and he seemed to find something that concerned him there. He reached out, fingers brushing Pim’s chin, and Pim stepped closer, feeling that touch right to the pit of his stomach. “I didn’t want a husband who would hate to be chosen by me,” Gaspard said softly, his eyes intent on Pim’s. “Rumor travels, you know, even across the Rillan Sea. I had heard certain things about you.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Pim said, jaw tensing.

Gaspard’s fingers, though, remained gentle, spreading along his jawline. “Nothing bad,” he said. “Reports of flirtations, nothing more. It was enough to give me hope that you could be…” His lips twisted, and Pim waited a moment, wondering if he would think of a word.

“Happy?” Pim finally ventured, feeling like he’d just stepped off the cliff and was hoping, hoping that Gaspard would catch him.

“Is it possible?” Gaspard asked.

There was something forlorn in the question, and Pim almost hated him for it in that moment. He groaned and reached out, catching the lapels of Gaspard’s jacket. “Is it possible?” he repeated. “Only if you will stop rebuffing me at every step along the way! I have tried again and again to make it possible, only for you to…”

“I’m sorry,” Gaspard said, and for a moment, it was enough to silence Pim. He sounded like he meant it, his face creased with an unhappiness that Pim wanted to smooth away. “I was not happy about the engagement at first, but it was no excuse to make things more difficult for you. It’s been a long time since I allowed myself to pursue someone; I am not accustomed to opening myself up to another. Even to accept an advance that intrigues me.”

“You said ‘at first,’” Pim said, very aware of his pulse beating fast in his ears, his throat. “Has that changed?”

“I think I am very curious about you,” Gaspard said, ducking his head a little. His fingers trailed back, just disturbing the hair behind Pim’s ear, prompting a delicious shiver. “And I think we could get on. And I am prepared to promise you that I will try.

“That’s all I ever asked for,” Pim said. They were so close now, and Pim wasn’t quite sure how it had happened, if he had stepped closer, or Gaspard, or both. From somewhere beneath the riot in his mind, Pim pulled enough composure to smirk at Gaspard. “Would it be too improper to kiss you?” he asked, hiding his uncertainty behind the boldness of the quip.

Before he had time to regret it, Gaspard closed the distance. For a breath or five, they molded into each other, lips teasing and testing. Pim reveled in how pliant Gaspard’s lips were, how warm his body, when so often he could look like a statue more than a man. Finally, their lips parted, though they were slower to unwind their arms and step away from one another.

“That was improper,” Gaspard said. “But there is no one to see.” He reached out, offering his hand. “I thought to ask you to race, today,” he said, smiling as Pim’s hand slipped into his. “Aurelie has been insistent on seeing. But if you would rather not include her…”

“Oh, no,” Pim said, grinning. “Aurelie is going to see you eat my dust. I insist.

And so, together, they walked back up to the house that would be theirs, finally beginning to talk in earnest.